Theologians of the past have much to teach us. Many of the contemporary theological and practical questions that Christians wrestle with are not new. Crossway’s Theologians of the Christian Life series opens up to readers today the insights of the past. As part of that series Stephen Nichols gives us Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life. There is much that Christians today can learn from Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer teaches us to see how orthodox Christology impacts practical missiology.
This is not a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Though there is, obviously, lots of biographical information dispersed throughout the pages of the book, it focuses on a specific area of Bonhoeffer’s theology, not his life in general. We do get to “Meet Bonhoeffer” in the introduction. Nichols walks us, helpfully, through the salient points in understanding the man. He urges us not to see him as “heroic,” but rather as humble. He urges us to understand Bonhoeffer’s connection between life and faith. He walks us through the man’s most important works, and points to the central features of his theology: ecclesiology and Christology. We are quick to point to his heroic death at the hands of the Nazis, but Nichols wants us to see that there is more to Bonhoeffer. Specifically, he wants us to see how the man can influence our own discipleship in the world as Christ-followers. He writes:
Bonhoeffer so well understood how to live because he so well understood the cross on which Christ died. Bonhoeffer also grasped the all-encompassing implications of the cross for human existence. He lived from the cross for the world. This is why he’s worth meeting. (27)
Bonhoeffer has much to teach us about living as Christians in the world.
Bonhoeffer’s view of the Christian life takes a decidedly cruciform shape. The subtitle of the book “From the Cross, For the World,” encapsulates the two major themes of Bonhoeffer’s work: Christology and Ecclesiology. Nichols begins his survey with an understanding of what it means to be “in Christ,” pointing to the cross as both a model and a means of justification. Nichols is not shy to address the issue of Bonhoeffer’s conservativism. One central point of debate in Bonhoeffer studies is the question: Was Bonhoeffer an Evangelical? Nichols notes that the debates will likely rage on, but he sees no reason to question his “conservative bona fides.” He writes:
Bonhoeffer should not be counted among theological liberals. He was a theological conservative. He not only had an orthodox view of Christ; he also prominently displayed that view in his work and placed it at the center of his thought and life. He held to the doctrine of justification by faith, and he had a high view of Scripture. (81-82)
The cross, as central to his theology, was a reminder of our weaknesses, particularly as it points to our sin. We cannot deal with our sin, we can do nothing to resolve this problem. Justification is all of God, our role is simply to believe. Faith is, says Bonhoeffer, “the most profound human passivity” (41). We are in constant need of grace in the Christian life.
Furthermore, this cruciform shape of Christian living leads us towards suffering. The cross is a rebuke to the power systems of his day (particularly the Nazis), a rebuke to individual arrogance, a rebuke to self-justification. Instead, the cross calls us to sacrifice and humility. Nichols summarizes:
Bonhoeffer saw implications within an orthodox Christology for how one lives. By coming to grips with our own sinfulness, we cultivate a little humility. By coming to grips with Christ’s humiliation and his taking on flesh and fully identifying with us, we cultivate a little more humility (Philippians 2). And from this stance of humility comes service to others…Christ’s humiliation forces us first upward to look to him, then outward to look to others. (49)
From the cross, for the world.
Here we begin to see the true shape of the center of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Nichols calls it a Christo-ecclesiological-ethic. “We could simply say that according to Bonhoeffer, life is lived in Christ, in community, in love” (53). Nichols highlights how central love is to the work and practice of Bonhoeffer. He guides us through the ways he cared for the Confessing church, the seminarians he trained at Finkenwalde, Jews facing persecution, and, while in prison, still attempted to care for his own family. Nichols guides us through Life Together and Ethics to see how Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on love is manifest. For all of Bonhoeffer’s theology practicality is essential. That his Christology would have implications for life is not surprising, then. From the cross, for the world, is a fitting summary for how Bonhoeffer viewed the Christian life. Orthodox Christology can and should shape practical missiology.
This is a fantastic book. With both a historian’s insight and a pastor’s heart, Stephen Nichols introduces us to Bonhoeffer in a way that would, I think, have pleased the man himself. He tells us about Bonhoeffer’s views on the Christian life not just to give us information, but, more significantly to challenge our own faithful living. This is a work of history written for practical application. In reading it, not only was I enamored with Bonhoeffer, but I was challenged to think critically about my own personal Christian life. I highly recommend both this Theologians of the Christian Life series, and this particular volume, Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life, to all readers. You will be challenged to see how your theology should move you to action, particularly the actions of love.